CORCRAIN AND THE FLEMINGS
The Country Fellas Come to Town
George, or Geordie as the family called him, like Bill, emigrated at a very early age. Geordie emigrated to Canada. He ended up in lodgings in Toronto in a house belonging to a woman called Mrs. Jennings. Mrs. Jennings had a daughter called Marguerite, whom Geordie eventually married. As Marguerite once remarked, after living in the same house with her and her mother for years, he finally got smart!
I first met Geordie shortly after my granda died. He and his son Bob, who was then about twelve years old, came home to Ireland for a visit. What a day that was - the day Geordie and Bob arrived! All the family travelled to the airport in a mini bus to meet them coming off the plane. I think it must have been about twenty seven years since Geordie had left for Canada! The question everyone was asking was, ‘D’you think will we know him?’ There was no problem. As soon as we saw Geordie we knew him – even those of us who had never seen him before. He looked so like my granda, it was impossible not to!
When we arrived back at our house in Corcrain it was crowded with people. People who had known Geordie before he left for Canada – pals, relations, neighbours!
One of his old pals whom he was able to catch up with was a man called John McCullough. John was a great man for the Lambeg drum, and Geordie was fairly made up when John put a drum on him and let him have a few thumps.
It was a wonderful three weeks for all of us, but especially for my granny who was overjoyed to see her son again after all those years! Sadly my granda hadn’t lived long enough.
As usual, my mother was the one best able to fill me in on Geordie’s life before he emigrated. She used to describe him as the ‘only one in the family with brains’. The entire Fleming family attended Drumgoose School, as did most of the Corcrain children at that time. At twelve years old Geordie had progressed to the highest class in the school and unless he went on for higher education, there were no more classes for him to attend. Of course in those days higher education for the normal working-class family was out of the question. My granny and granda were only too glad to have him earning money, to help keep the rest of the family.
When they were children and before Geordie and Bill went away, my mother said it used to be great when the whole family sat down at the table at once. Granny and Granda Fleming, their six sons and one daughter all sitting around this big white wood table. My mother said it was usually her task to keep the table well scrubbed!
My mother told me how, before she was old enough to go into the town, on a Saturday night she used to give Geordie a three-penny bit to bring her home a dozen oranges. He would come home, hand her the bag of oranges and when she looked in the bottom of the bag her three-penny bit would be in it as well. In those days apparently Portadown’s main street was lined with young ones – the boys standing with their backs to the wall – watching all the girls go by! She said the girls used to have great sport when the ‘country ones’ arrived in town. The country fellas wore big hankies in their breast pockets and sometimes would have their girlfriends with them. The town girls used to pull out their hankies and run away with them, to get the country fellas to go after them. If those with a girlfriend hanging on their arm were tempted, their girlfriends soon put a stop to them chasing the townies. The country girls used to be rippin’ mad at the town ones!
When my mother was old enough to go into the town on a Saturday night, she said it used to be great arriving home after a good night out. They were always starving with hunger but my granny would have a big tray of pig’s feet roasting in the oven for them coming in.
Like Bill’s wife, when the war was on Geordie’s wife, Marguerite, sent loads of parcels home. In one of the parcels, along with lots of tins and packets of different foods, was this big tin of ham – the likes of which we had never seen before. Not even when there was no war on! My mother divided it up, making sure the families of Jimmy, Bob and Alex got a share. There were always lots of sweets in Marguerite’s parcels as well. Mostly packets of little round fruit sweets, something like Polo fruits. We had never had anything like these before either and were mad about them. We thought them the nicest sweets we had ever tasted! There were also packets of chewing gum. In them days our chewing gum was all little squares. The stuff we received from Canada was in the long strips we know today, but at that time was entirely foreign to us. The first time we saw chewing gum like that was when the Yankees came to Ireland during the war. They were always handing it out to the children.
During the war Geordie was a photographer on the Canadian Air Force. Some members of the Canadian forces were posted to N. Ireland and it was always hoped Geordie would be one of them, but that never happened.
My mother told the story of how one day at school the master gave them this sum to do for their homework. Geordie had left school at the time. My mother wasn’t able to do the sum, so asked Geordie to help her. Next day when the master marked their homework she was the only one in the class to get the sum right. She was brought up to the front of the room and the master said ‘Now, Mary – how is it you got the sum right and the rest of the class didn’t?’ Her teachers always called her Mary though everyone else called her May!
‘I asked Geordie to help me,’ she replied.
‘I thought so,’ the master said. ‘But did he explain how to do it?’
By good luck, Geordie had. It ended up with my mother at the black-board, explaining to the rest of the class how it was done.
Geordie had an unusual knack of finding four-leaf clovers. When he was staying with us, I remember several times him sitting in our garden, maybe with the rest of the family and suddenly bending down and plucking a four-leaf clover. He usually handed it to whoever was nearest him I don’t know how he did it. I used to look all over the place trying to find one, but I never did.
Years later, I was eventually able to visit Geordie, Marguerite and Bob in Toronto, along with my mother and her cousin. That was a holiday to remember. Marguerite made us very welcome.
While in Canada we were invited to visit some friends of Marguerite. One of Marguerite’s friends remarked on how all the Fleming family were small and asked if everyone in Ireland was small. Geordie said, his eyes twinkling, ‘Only the good-looking ones! Isn’t that right?’ he appealed to us.
Of course I had to agree with him! ‘Everybody in Ireland is either big and ugly or small and good-looking!’ I said
Geordie and Marguerite had the traditional wooden Canadian veranda in front of the house they lived in. Like you see in films! They had easy chairs and rocking chairs placed along it. It was great sitting out in the evenings, the weather lovely and warm – just talking and chatting – mostly Geordie talking and asking questions about ‘home’. I got the impression that in spite of all the years he had lived in Canada part of him still thought of Portadown and Corcrain as his home.
My mother - Mary Margaret, or May – as she was known – was the only girl in the Fleming family of seven. She had lovely thick dark, naturally wavy hair. I remember when my granda used to be working at fixing clocks, many a time he would pull a hair from her head and use it for his repairs. I’m not sure exactly how he used it, but know he wrapped it around some of the works.
Six brothers and her the only girl! Now wouldn’t you think she’d have had a right old time of it – being spoiled by all those brothers! She used to say that when she was young that’s what all her friends thought. But in my mother’s day it wasn’t the same as now. Men wouldn’t have been caught dead helping around the house, whatever age they were. Washing, ironing, scrubbing floors, lighting fires, making beds, making food, any kind of housework – was women’s work. With the result, it was all left to my granny and my mother. And it was so much harder then too. No labour-saving devices in those days! No washing machines, no steam irons, no turning on the tap for water, in most cases – no flicking on a switch for light. All the water had to be fetched from the pump. Especially on wash day, it must have been backbreaking, carrying pails of water practically all morning, then starting in with the washboard. To give them their due – I think her brothers did help carry the pails of water.
Gramma’s house was a kind of refuge for my mother. Apparently on very wet days any of her brothers who happened to be working in the nursery would be sent home. They used to gather in the house with their pals. My granny and granda would be out working. Both of them worked in a linen factory at the time. The second my mother arrived home from school she was ordered, ‘Away you down to Gramma’s!’
She said when she went into Gramma’s house, Gramma would say, ‘Chased the day again, May?’
Although, as you can imagine, with such a large family, their house was overcrowded, my mother even at an early age always had a tiny room to herself. But she said it used to be awful when she went to bed before her brothers, especially on a dark winter’s night, maybe it raining and the wind howling. They used to gather outside her window, claw the glass with their nails and hiss, ‘Red Eyes is coming to get you!’ She used to lie with the blankets over her head, trembling with fear, even though she knew it was them.
She used to talk about these people, up the road from them, who kept pigs. Also, at one time Tam Gilpin reared pigs so he could sell their bacon in his shop! When it was time for the pigs to be slaughtered they sent for Jack McAtamney, the slaughter man. All the children used to gather to watch, but my mother said she only went once. The second she saw the pig’s throat being cut she ran for home!
Rain, hail or snow, as did all her brothers, every morning my mother had to walk over two miles to Drumgoose school. Their school was a wee white-washed building with only two classrooms and two teachers – Master and Mistress Trueman. She said the master and mistress were wonderful teachers. On wet days they would hang the pupils’ outdoor clothes around the fire to dry and many a time even loaned them clothes belonging to their own children.
One of the stories she used to tell was about the day she was on her way home from school along with the rest of the pupils from Corcrain when a hay-shifter came along the road. Years ago when hay-shifters were on the go children used to run after them and jump on for a ride. They were a kind of low flat cart, pulled by a horse. This particular day, the man driving the shifter saw the group of children heading home from Drumgoose School to Corcrain. Instead of having them run after him, he stopped and waited for them to climb on board. When all were safely on, he flicked the horse’s reins and shouted, ‘Gee-up, there!’ The horse was trotting along nicely. Next second the shifter collapsed at the back and all the children fell off again. Sure that it was their combined weight which had broken the shifter and afraid of the consequences, they fled as if for their lives.
Another time, she said, the horse-drawn vehicle that delivered sweets to all the shops had an accident in Corcrain. I’m not sure what happened, but the vehicle overturned. The doors shot open and sweets poured out onto the street. All the children had a field day – chasing after the sweets and filling their pockets.
In my mother’s young days entertainment was very different from what it was now. She used to tell me about the social and dance held every year in Drumcree Church hall. All the Fleming family belonged to Drumcree! She said it was common enough to see the curate up dancing. She used to go a lot to the pictures, only then it was silent films. The actors’ words were flashed up on the screen for the audience to read, while someone played stirring music on a piano. My mother said everybody read the words out loud, so even though the film was silent, inside the picture house could be noisy enough!
My mother and father (Fred Holland) met at a wake. Although my parents were in no way related, through marriage some of my mother’s cousins were also cousins of my father. A friend from both sides of the family died and in those days apparently wakes were a great source of entertainment. If my mother was in the company of someone who was very lively, she was fond of remarking, ‘He’d be great sport at a wake!’ There was music and dancing, with drink, food and tea handed around, and everyone had a great time. They even handed around cigarettes - or tobacco for those who smoked a pipe.
I think my granny was very strict and was what we would consider now as terribly old-fashioned. She didn’t approve of dances. My father loved dancing and one night, while he and my mother were courting, he brought her to a dance in an Orange Hall out in the country. I suppose they thought they were safe, attending a dance so far away. My granny would never find out. But halfway through the dance the door opened and a little group of men entered the hall. One of them was my granda! He had been out with the men - hunting with the hounds - and on the way back called in to see the dancing. My mother looked towards the door and straight into my granda’s face. But all he did was give a wee nod and a smile, his usual twinkle lighting up his eyes - and that was the end of it. He never mentioned to my granny that he had seen her at the dance. My mother was never all that interested in dancing, anyway. But I remember when there used to be dancing at the bonfires on an Eleventh of July night in Portadown, my father teaching me how to dance
When my mother and father married they couldn’t afford a honeymoon so had to be content with going to Bangor for the day. It was what you might have called a ‘honeymoon outing’, except for the fact their bridesmaid and best-man went with them. It was the done thing then. Very few could afford a honeymoon. My mother told me that when they were first married they were hard pressed to find four pence for a rabbit for Sunday’s dinner.
They were married on the 10th July in 1935. On the 19th January, 1936, King George V died. His oldest son became King Edward V111, Edward was never crowned; his reign lasted only 325 days, The fact that Edward's coronation did not take place did not prevent commemorative pieces like paintings, mugs and other memorabilia being sold, when the abdication was announced these had already been manufactured and on sale, my mother and father bought a framed picture of the new King Edward, from a man called Herbie Watchman, who was Jewish. He used to sell goods on credit, then went round the doors every week, collecting his money. But shortly after Edward abdicated giving up the throne for the woman he loved - a divorcee - Mrs. Wallis Simpson his brother George was crowned King instead. King George V1. The picture my parents bought was no use a’tall. Who wanted a picture of the king who was no longer the king, hanging above their fireplace!
‘You can take back that oul picture you sold us,’ my father tackled Herbie. ‘It’s no good to anybody!’
‘I’m not taking it back,’ Herbie said.
‘Well, we don’t want left with it!’
‘You think you’re bad – left with one!’ came the reply. ‘I’m left with dozens!’
During the war I can remember convoys of English soldiers going through Corcrain and my mother, as well as other women, throwing packets of cigarettes into the back of their trucks. I remember her saying she had the cigarettes in the house to send to my father who was in the army at the time, but would buy him some more. A soldier on a motorbike was parked at the horse trough, directing the convoy through. He couldn’t leave his post, so my mother brought him over a tray with tea and sandwiches. I remember one other occasion my mother and granny serving soldiers with food. They too were directing a convoy through. Only these ones were able to come into our house and sit around the table. Nobody had very much money and things were hard, but people always seemed to share the little they had. The English soldiers were never treated as well by the government as the American and Canadian army were. When a convoy of Yankee soldiers passed through, it was the other way about. They threw sweets, cigarettes and chewing gum out of their lorries to women and children. One day my mother and I, along with another woman and her young son, were out for a walk. On the way back, down Brankin’s hill, a whole lot of trucks went past full of American soldiers. We were the only ones in sight and they threw all this stuff to us! We were running all over the road picking it up.
The Beggar Man
Getting a Fright
Reading the Tea Leaves
Lizzie – Brightening things up
Joe Hughes’ Clock
Growing up in Corcrain
Mrs. Montgomery Tam
The First Primroses
Walks around the Country Roads
Finding a Skull
The First World War
A Wee Drop of Drink
Attacked by a Bull – Saved by a Lighted Match
Dead but Wouldn’t Lie down
The Second World War
Ghosts and Lizzie Curry
The Country Fellas Come to Town
The Hay Shifter
The Christmas Rhymers
Maggie’s Birthday Parties
Chapter 9 Alex